Posted by: Lisa Hill | February 14, 2019

Trigger Warnings, Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right, by Jeff Sparrow

In a (futile) pre-Christmas effort to rein in book spending, I had borrowed Jeff Sparrow’s latest book from the library but it wasn’t long before I realised that I wanted my own copy.  Trigger Warnings, Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right isn’t a book to scamper through and return within three weeks.  It’s a ‘chapter-a-day sort of book, allowing time for thinking in between.

I wish I had a dollar for every time I’ve been asked if told by people not in the profession that teachers aren’t allowed to celebrate Christmas any more.  This anti-PC furphy went so far that the education department in Victoria had to put out a circular reminding us what had always been true: Christmas traditions are part of Australian culture.  While in government schools which have been secular since 1870 when education became free and compulsory, teachers can’t infuse the Christmas story with religiosity, they can certainly tell the Christmas story, decorate classrooms, sing Christmas songs, and of course have the students make presents and cards.  Clearly, in a multicultural society like ours, it would be crass for any teacher to ignore other cultural festivals such as Diwali, Eid, and the Chinese and Jewish New Year celebrations &c.  Likewise at Christmas my students were always free to make whatever kind of cards they liked.  For me, the issue always was about finding a way for the activities to have some educational value.  So we would study Christmas and other celebrations around the world (i.e. geography), and when I had Year 5 & 6 classes and they’d done that to death, we did Holiday Safety, at the beach etc.  That wasn’t being PC, it was to teach something useful at the end of the school year, when the older students were usually bored and restless.

The first chapter of Sparrow’s book is about how this term political correctness a.k.a. PC arose.  He reminds me that…

… right-wingers portray PC as an Orwellian scheme to end freedom of speech, a deliberate strategy to impose a progressive orthodoxy.  In reality, radicals coined the term as a joke.  The phrase first emerged within the American New Left as an ironic homage to Stalinist rhetoric, adopted by progressives to mock censorious comrades and to chaff the overly earnest. In Australia and Britain, the preferred term was ‘ideologically sound’ but the gag worked the same way. (p.12)

Yes, by the time PC had trickled down to usage by ordinary people like us, we used it to poke fun at our own lame efforts to Do The Right Thing.  Carnivores at the BBQ teased the vegetarians about ideologically sound ‘hayburgers’ and The Ex would ask if his tie was ideologically sound before setting off to work in the morning.  We still use it: asking friends if they would like some ideologically sound excess vegies from the vegie patch.  So it’s fascinating to read how in America, what was originally a satire on totalitarianism became, for the right, a signifier of totalitarianism. Key players in this transformation were Ronald Reagan, the Australian political commentator Nick Adams, the classicist Allan Bloom and NY Times reporter Richard Bernstein who wrote an article called The Rising Hegemony of the Politically Correct. (It’s paywalled, but you’re allowed one free visit each month, though I myself wouldn’t waste it on this article).

Chapter Two traces the history of 20th century activism in the great social movements of our time: feminism, the gay and lesbian rights movements, and the struggle against racism. While it wasn’t a neat progression, Sparrow characterises the activists of the 1950s and early 60s as ‘palliationist’, that is, middle-class, speaking on behalf of others, non-confrontationist, and ‘respectable’.  By contrast, ‘direct politics’, in the late 60s and 70s, had a focus on mass action, on grassroots mobilisation, on participation and self-organisation by workers, students and the oppressed.  Crucially, whereas palliationist politics distinguished between interests, direct politics drew connections between issues so that counterculture, black, women’s, student and anti-war movements were entwined and used the same (sometimes militant) tactics.  But by the mid 70s, radicalism had moved on to pragmatics, and a once-widespread commitment to revolutionary change had given way to ‘the practical pursuit of reforms’, with many former firebrands becoming what [Todd Gitlincalled ‘crisp professional lobbyists’ or devoted to winning local office.  This third shift into professional settings is termed ‘delegated politics’, (and in Australia, you can see it in feminist Anne Summer‘s career as a bureaucrat in the Hawke government’s Office for the Status of Women. See also my review of Damned Whores and God’s Police.)  It is this shift into delegated politics that makes it easier for conservatives to frame action to protect minorities as a bureaucratic measure imposed by an unrepresentative minority.

Chapter Three ‘Battlers and Elites’ explores the most baffling phenomenon of it all. As the blurb says (in part):

The man lives, quite literally, in a building serviced by a golden elevator. Somehow, he presented himself as the scourge of the elites. For decades, he built a persona based on the most conspicuous consumption and the crassest of excess – and then he won the presidency on an antiestablishment ticket. The unlikely rise of Donald J Trump exemplifies the political paradox of the twenty-first century.

In this new Gilded Age, the contrast between the haves and the have-nots could not be starker. The world’s eight richest billionaires control as much wealth as the poorest half of the planet – a disparity of wealth and political power unknown in any previous period. Yet not only have progressives failed to make gains in circumstances that should, on paper, favour egalitarianism and social justice, the angry populism that’s prospered explicitly targets ideas associated with the left – and none more so than so-called ‘political correctness’.

I remember being astonished when John Howard described teachers as part of the ‘elite’.  Me, with my mortgage, and my ordinary house in the suburbs, and my ordinary job as a primary school teacher.  What he meant was the contrast between the sound common sense of working-class battlers (whose children I taught) and the censoriousness of the progressive elites.  It was a weird way of thinking about class in Australia, but while there’s no mystery about how a fish-and chip shop owner like Pauline Hanson has captured this sentiment, it is baffling that Australian battlers support millionaires like Clive Palmer.  But as Sparrow explains, the argument depends on the assumption that ordinary people were traditonalist, repelled by the exotic notions expounded by the ‘new class’.  Or more exactly, it defined ordinariness by conservatism — and then defined elitism by radicalism.  

There are many interesting aspects to this book, not the least of which is the extent to which the rhetoric in Australia has slavishly followed the American version.  We can see an example of this at the moment where an environmental disaster is attributed in some quarters to ‘greenies’ and unemployment is blamed not on factory closures due to neoliberal economics but on refugees.  The chapters about smug politics’ is instructive indeed…

But on a note of optimism in the conclusion, Sparrow cites the success of the grassroots movement for marriage equality, which showed our politicians that they were out of step with the views of the electorate.  I would like to think that after a long period of inertia, there is a groundswell of demand for action on climate change coming in the same way.

I would also like to think that Sparrow’s plea for people to get involved in social activism bears fruit.

I may yet write another post about the chapter on identity politics because it’s so useful.  But this review is too long already, so I would recommend you get hold of a copy for yourself.

The book includes acknowledgements, notes, but unfortunately, not an index.  (I say that because I know I’ll be referring to this book off and on in the future).

PS There are reading notes on the publisher’s website.

Author: Jeff Sparrow
Title: Trigger Warnings, Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right
Publisher: Scribe Publications, 2018, 300 pages
ISBN: 9781925713183
Personal copy, purchased from Fishpond.

Available from FIshpond: Trigger Warnings: political correctness and the rise of the right $26.72 or direct from Scribe where it is also available as an eBook.


Responses

  1. This sounds really interesting Lisa. I might get it as an eBook – though I usually only get non-Aus books that way.

    I refuse to use terms like “political correctness” and “identity politics” because they can be thrown around in ways that prevent or discourage thought about the issues behind them, the truths behind them – and it’s the truths that are important to me. That is very funny about the twisting of the meaning or understanding of “ideologically sound”.

    That idea about defining ordinariness as conservatism and elitism by radicalism is fascinating, because, as you say, why do apparently poorer or battling people support the likes of Palmer here (or Trump in the USA). It’s uncomfortable being white, middle-class, and financially secure (not that I’m complaining – I’m very grateful) because I’m conscious that I can sound so sure (pompous even) that I know how things should be but in reality I am so cushioned, and have so many choices, that I sometimes wonder who am I to say?

    Anyhow, it certainly sounds like a book that you have to read slowly.

    BTW Did you hear the Law Report today and about the first judgement to cite climate change as a reason – it was to deny a new coal mine in the Hunter Valley. Apparently, jurisprudence has for some time been requiring directors etc to take climate change into consideration in decision making but this is the first time it’s been used in a court judgement.

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    • The book is fascinating because it teases out so many of the issues that you’ve raised, and how they mean such different things to different people. I saw a tweet today about an article by Zadie Smith regarding identity politics (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/feb/02/zadie-smith-political-correctness-hay-cartagena?CMP=share_btn_tw) in which she questions the way social media is “policing” things like this, and someone has responded that she can say what she has, because she’s a different skin colour to Lionel Shriver.
      How have we come to this? Well, I wouldn’t say that Jeff Sparrow has the answers, and I don’t agree with everything he says, but I think he’s on the right track when he says that while progressives are focussed on such issues, the really big issue which is inequality is not being tackled at all.

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      • My thinking is that rather than wonder how we have come to this, we could see it as part of a continuum – or the ebbs and flows – of change, which always involves some extremes before some consensus is, hopefully, reached? We are in the middle of some of that change now. And, some of the positions taken can feel extreme, but if we believe in the truth underpinning them (which I see as equality and respect for all regardless of race, gender, sexual identity, religions, etc etc) we just have to ride them out. I think!

        As for inequality. Yes, that was an issue which was grounded into me when I studied education in the early 1970s – I still have the text because just seeing it in my bookshelves reminds me of the belief that has never left me, which is that inequality goes hand in hand with lack of opportunity. No matter how much people think that others just need to work hard so why should I help them, things won’t change until there is more equality. I think some are trying to tackle it, but not effectively, and it gets beaten down. Just think of the ALPs franking policy and the debate about that, as one little example. But, I understand that the real issue is more structural and I have no idea about where to start!!

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        • Yes, good point about the ebb and flow of change… feminism 101 taught us that, eh?
          (I’ve just started Jane Caro’s book Accidental Feminists today, it’s fabulous!)
          As for education equality: Gonski wrote the book on that and look what happened to it. To keep the private school vote the ALP promised that no school would be worse off. It’s insane…

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          • We’re going to an Author In Conversation featuring Jane Caro on Monday. I’m looking forward to it – but haven’t read the book OF COURSE!

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            • Gosh, she’s going to be exhausted, I’m going to a talk with her on Wednesday!

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  2. Owning land should not be a right but a privilege and could be a starting point in righting the imbalance of the class system which is more nuanced and problematic than the strict ideology that the left advocates.After all it is a natural bounty not created or produced by human beings. But that is not part of the conversation as the fickle and disparate population pursue their own interests. Where to begin? Am sure Jeff’s book will be most interesting and informative but unfortunately he is part of the elite in some folk’s opinion and opinions are thrown around like legal currency as if they are all worthy of attention. One of the major downsides of democracy and Australia is a perfect example is that we have some of the most ignorant and divisive people in the public arena. And it seems there is no shortage of their ilk in our shallow discourse that is the public space.

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    • I think there are many things we need to do to redress the problem, but the main one is that the wealthy do not pay their share of tax. With the growth of globalism, there are huge corporations making massive amounts of money and not paying any tax in any country (Apple, Uber, all those holiday booking sites which cream most of the profit away from the hotels and B&Bs (which are not all big chains like Radisson), Google, etc). The G7 and G20 ought to be tackling this global tax evasion IMO.

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  3. Yes there are many things that could make a difference but although it is a radical notion a land tax could be one way of reaping some of that revenue from those corporations and uber wealthy individuals who have multiple properties and can avoid taxes because of the weak jurisdictions and corrupt states that exist. When the population is at the mercy of a corrupt banking system it is very difficult to expect them to sustain commitments to complex issues that seem distanced from their reality. Still we have Jeff doing a great job of bringing these issues to the fore and all credit to him for this.

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  4. I agree about tax. Short of a revolution, I would very much like to see us get back to a mixed economy, where proper living conditions for the less privileged parts of society were a right. The right have astonished us all by regaining the upper hand, both in economics and in discourse, in ways we thought belonged to the worst days of the C19th, or at least the 1920s, and with a lack of civility which is unprecedented.

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    • It’s as if there was a global consensus to give working people a decent wage and a safety net while communism was a threat, and as soon as it wasn’t, capitalism reverted to its 19th century model, without the philanthropy as a buffer.

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  5. Astonished is a good word Bill … I can’t quite believe what’s happened over the last 2-3 decades. It’s taught me a lot about “history” and how progress (or what I define as progress – more equality in all spheres which includes improved conditions and better opportunities for all) is not as linear as I’d thought. I’m hoping it’s just two steps forward, one step back, but …

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  6. I had no idea about the origin of that term PC. I find it sad that traditional celebrations like Christmas are watered down because companies/managers etc think people who are not Christian will be offended. The National Trust in the UK came in for huge criticism last year because they took the word Easter out of an egg hunt event….. I’m not religious in any form and would be just as happy marking Passover, Diwali, Chinese New Year ….

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    • It’s interesting, isn’t it?
      I think it’s inevitable that there will be some casualties of traditions in a changing society. For me, it’s all about inclusion but these days there’s always going to be someone who feels ‘left out’ and that so often leads to trolling and vilification on social media, I’m not surprised that some bodies choose to sidestep the issue.

      Liked by 1 person

      • The thing I really dislike is when a decision is justified on the basis that the celebration or whatever it is, could offend a particular group. There’s never any basis for that conclusion….

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        • I can’t think of an occasion that would justify it, though perhaps that might not be the case with solemn commemoration days. (For example, it would probably be considered crass to have some kind of street festival around the site of 9/11, and will be for some years to come).

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  7. […] represented widespread disaffection with the economy.  Clinton, (as Jeff Sparrow points out in Trigger Warnings) was singing the same old economic song that had led to mass unemployment and the rise of the […]

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  8. […] Trigger Warnings, Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right, by Jeff Sparrow […]

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